Blue Coble, Apprentice Ironworker, Local 75 of Phoenix
Blue Coble, a fourth year Ironworker apprentice from Phoenix, Arizona, recently awarded “Outstanding Apprentice of the Year,” by her Local, is just days away from graduating her apprenticeship program. This self-proclaimed “girlie girl” and former graphic designer says she didn’t even know Ironworkers existed muntil a few years ago. Her passion for art led her first to graphic design, and now to ironwork. Ironwork, she says, is a labor of love with greater rewards.
“Growing up I wanted to be an artist and graphic design seemed perfect for that,” she says. “It was a medium I really liked. I loved being on the computer, I coded, designed, and got to be nerdy with the numbers for artistic design projects.” A graphic designer for ten years, she reached a ceiling and cubicle life became arduous. Then she learned about ironworkers from her roommate. “My roommate used to party with Ironworkers and she told me they would talk about how great their work was and what fun they were having. So I went online and checked it out. I didn’t know anything about construction but with the apprenticeship program through the local union, I thought that’s perfect! I can learn while earning and see what happens.”
Blue found ironwork to be a huge adjustment with a very steep learning curve. “In graphic design I always kept in mind that I was a translator. It was my job to help translate a client’s idea and turn it into something tangible. It was all mental. Construction is kind of the same thing but physical and more hands on. I wasn’t prepared for how much construction was gonna kick my ass into shape after sitting behind a desk all that time.” Building strength, calluses, as well as stamina and endurance under extreme conditions, she felt the struggle. “Rebar is the most demanding thing anyone can do. It’s brutal, especially in Arizona where the iron gets really hot. I have scars on my shoulders from where I was burned by iron. I had to figure out and learn little tricks to help get me through those moments to the next steps. That was the hardest to learn.”
“I love welding and I love detail work. With ironwork you create ornamental designs, everything has to look good. I get to bring those two dimensional designs from blue prints into a functional physical item. And I love that every job is different job. I get to meet new people, do different things. I am constantly moving and my work environment is constantly changing. I meet guys who’ve been in the trade for ten years and they’re still learning stuff. It’s constant growth.”
Making the change from a professional office included “getting used to the slang, the way guys think and how things are communicated. It was a very huge leap. My first week at a jobsite a really sweet old guy says to me, ‘Pick up your tits.’ I said, ‘Whaaat, did you really just say that to me?’ He said, ‘yeah. Yeah, I need you to pick up your tits.’ We use tension control bolts in grips in connecting structural iron framework. The end of the shank has a spline that the power wrench grips on to and tightens down the nut. When the appropriate torque is reached, the spline is snapped off. That spline is also called a tit. Most of the time, they get left behind, and you can’t litter the jobsite with them. So I had to pick my tits up off the floor. I also had to learn that just because a guy throws a tantrum doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world, he’s just blowing off steam. And the heights, oh yeah! But you focus on the spot right in front of you and get on up!”
“I love being physical and the types of people that I work with are completely different from before. I don’t miss the cubicles, nor the customer service. I like that I can swear at people now when we don’t agree. With design it was more mental, construction is much more hands on and it is fun to have an outlet for that energy. Blue adds that she has gotten an amazing amount of support from local 75. “I’ve been very blessed with my union. My guys, they really are my brothers. I have yet to run into a guy that gives me grief about being a girl, and when it does happen, it’s been very minor. When I show up on the job site, everyone has been amazing and very encouraging we all support each other on the job. I really feel like I lucked out.”
Blue also talks about the importance of supporting more women to come into construction. “I have now been to three of the Women Building the Nation conferences. They are amazing! You rarely see any women ironworkers and all of a sudden there’s a 100 of us together at the conference. Many of them have put in 25, 30 years and they share their experiences, expertise and history with all of us. In my local out of 600 members, there are only 4 women. I have spoken to our union Business Agent and Manager about how to support getting more women in. We should have women shop stewards on the site, designate a point of contact for when women come in to apply for apprenticeship, reach out to applicants and apprentices to give a little extra support and help so they are not too overwhelmed when they first get in. The only other woman in my apprenticeship class didn’t make it. I also go to school career days. I go in with a full harness and tools and let the girls know that women are out there doing this work and that they can do it too. It’s not just me, at the conferences we always encourage each other to reach out to potential sisters and encourage sisters who may be struggling or having a hard time and to make an extra effort to support them.”
“I don’t think there is enough said about what kinds of trades are actually a part of construction. I didn’t even know Ironworkers existed until a few years ago. Girls especially need to know more about the kinds of things you can do in construction. There are so many avenues to take in this business and I think I might have taken a very different path if I had known more about this work.”
Blue also discusses the importance of safety on the job. “Accidents are not as rare as people would prefer, things do happen, so plan for the worst, hope for the best. In Arizona, because of the heat, they have tricks to work around it like drinking pickle juice and pedialyte to stay hydrated and avoid muscle cramps. Ironworkers work hard and play hard. We like to leave the jobsite the way we came in, just a little richer!”
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